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'I don't believe it," exclaimed my London friend, "You are actually going to waste your time watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace? You're going to stand there gawking with all the tourists at empty pomp and ceremony? Don't you have better things to do?"
I felt intimidated because I did in fact have better things to do, and I agreed that it was a waste of time. But I rarely get to London, have never seen the changing of the guard and was curious to see what was so appealing to millions of people from around the world. So I boarded the Underground to Green Park and strolled through the park over to Buckingham Palace.
As everyone knows, the palace and the monarch are never left unprotected. They must always have a guard. Even though in our day there are dozens of ways, electronic and otherwise, to guard the palace, the presence of human guards is nevertheless mandatory.
This is reminiscent of the Temple in Jerusalem. Surrounding it at each of it many gates and entrances were Levite guards. They too were not needed for protection, but were on duty because, in the words of Maimonides, although no one feared that bandits or thieves or enemies might break in, "one cannot compare a palace without guards to a palace with guards." It is matter of honor, prestige and glory that such a place always be protected.
Would Buckingham Palace be less secure if the guards wore ordinary uniforms instead of their elegant, full-dress, scarlet-and-black raiment, high black bearskin caps - which weigh more than 11 kilos - and white gloves? And if the guards sat on chairs or slouched or chatted with one another - would the palace be less safe? Certainly not.
But how much more majestic it is when the guards stand ramrod straight, look ahead and barely blink an eye - as guardsmen have done ever since 1485.
AND THEN at precisely 11:30 in the morning, the guard changes. There is a 40-minute parade of 50 guardsmen, who march, play martial music, stride in lockstep, stand at attention, present arms - all to carry out the formality of relieving the earlier guards of their morning duties.
Why can't these replacement guards simply walk in, salute and take their places, while the old guards simply stroll away? Why all the precision and formality?
Because ritual and ceremony are not meaningless. There is a certain beauty in them. We may scoff, but deep within us we love and need pomp and pageantry in our lives. It lends beauty to drab existences, adds an element of majesty and grandeur to lives that are ordinary. Yes, we scoff, but it is precisely pomp and circumstance that our spirits crave.
Beyond all this is the sense of majesty and monarchy that is evident here. In the democratic West, we have no sense of an all-powerful king. Presidents, prime ministers, heads of state go out of their way to show that they are just like everyone else. This is the essence of democracy. Kingship, monarchy, sovereignty is the stuff of fairy tales.
Even in our daily prayers, it is not easy for modern Jews to identify with the constant references to a King or "King of Kings." Never having experienced a living monarch, we find the concept of kingship foreign.
Watching the changing of the guard in front of London's splendid palace gives us a glimpse into what monarchy once signified. The queen who resides in this palace is now relatively powerless, but it was not always so. Entire countries once quaked because of the flash of the royal pinkie. Today's pageantry offers an intimation of the awe and reverence once given to mortal kings, and we begin to comprehend that which is due the eternal King of Kings.
AS I watched the precision of the marching, I also sensed the inner need for order and predictability in our turbulent lives. The guardsmen march robotically within a precisely defined orbit, not one step too many, not one step too few. They turn at the same precise point, carry their arms at the same precise location. They symbolize that which we most lack in our chaotic lives: a sense of coherence and structure, an antidote to the randomness that seems to pervade us.
Fascinating: Order out of chaos is the theme of God's creation of the universe. Genesis 1:2 describes the pre-creation universe as "unformed and void." It connotes a period when the universe was one big soup with no defined boundaries.
How does God go about the process of creation? First, He makes order out of the chaos. He separates light from darkness, and gives each its own parameters. Then He gives each its own predictable, constant, unchanging mode of operation. Then He separates the day from the night, the waters from dry land, the heavens from the earth.
The word "separation" is found again and again in the first chapter of the Torah. God creates His universe by eliminating chaos. He does so by introducing a sense of order into nature, a sense of predictability and coherence.
EXCEPT FOR Adam and Eve. They are given free will and, being human, they are unpredictable and without order. They will have to find their own way. But deep within them is also implanted the inchoate desire for order.
To satisfy this need of His creatures, God gives mankind occasions like Shabbat and holy days, daily obligations and mitzvot, many dos and don'ts - all to help humanity escape chaos and randomness and find structure and order.
I went to Buckingham Palace prepared to scoff at the gawking tourists who were wasting precious time to view an empty performance. But I realized that what the crowds see helps satisfy one of the great cravings of the human soul: the desire for ritual, ceremony, beauty and majesty encased in a package of discipline, tradition, structure and coherence.
And I also came away with an enhanced appreciation for the meaning of kingship, and my own heritage, which antedates 1485 by thousands of years, and which - in obeisance to its own monarch - fills the Jewish soul with a cornucopia of beauty, structure, ceremony, discipline and coherence.
The writer served as a rabbi in Atlanta, Georgia, for 40 years, is past editor of Tradition magazine and is the author of numerous articles and books.